Introduction to Composition – part 1

This is the first of a multi-part introduction to composition, the 2nd of the 4-Cs that comprise our course. To me, this is the “C” that begins to distinguish snap-shooters from photographers. Today’s cameras make the 1st C we considered, Craftsmanship, easy – if you read your manual. So, composition is where the winning images begin to be separated from the losers. Good composition is more difficult than good craftsmanship.
This is the beginning of a journey that will help answer questions like – Technically this is a good image but it doesn’t seem to work. Why? Our previous lengthy exploration of Craftsmanship was intended to answer an earlier question – This photo is underexposed and/or poorly focused and/or whatever. How do I fix it? Now it all begins to come together.
I am breaking this introduction into a number of shorter sections. Otherwise, the reader will become overwhelmed and or bored. Spend some time reading each section, thinking about it, and rereading. It won’t come easily to everyone. It took me several years, plus a week with Freeman Patterson, before it made sense – and I still go back and study more. If you stick with it, then one day you’ll think – “AHA!”.
Relax and enjoy learning about composition. I suggest, as we progress though the study of composition, taking walks through HH with your camera and practice “Seeing” photographically. As an example, when we discuss lines go out and try to see not tree trunks but lines, not flower stems but lines…. When we discuss shapes, try seeing rectangles and not buildings, circles & ovals and not trees…. Further, beyond trying to “See” this way, begin trying to make images about lines, shapes and textures. Further, try incorporating what we will learn about Visual Design into the process of making your images. You’ll be amazed how fast your walk-time goes by and how, with time, you begin to see everyday common things in a whole new way. Conversely, if you don’t do this you’re just wasting your time – good photography takes work, not sitting and wishing.

…. try to forget what object you have before you – a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, ,….    – Claude Monet

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What is composition and why should you care?

  • Composition (noun) – combining parts or elements to form a whole
    • Written language – putting words and sentences together in accordance with rules
    • Art – organization of the different parts of a work of art so as to achieve a unified whole
    • Music & dance, among others, also employ composition using “part & elements” specific to those disciplines
  • Composition is used to deliver a message – in writing, or visually, or through sounds, etc.
    • As the composer you want your message to be clear to the recipient.
    • Unfortunately, it is the recipient and not the composer who decides the meaning of the received message.
    • Since the recipient and not you determine the message’s meaning, it’s essential that you compose your message as unambiguously as possible.

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In the next section, we will examine the different parts of two dimensional visual art – the elements of our language. That will be followed by a more detailed examination – and illustration by examples – of each part of our visual language. Finally, we will consider how to combine these elements to convey our “message” (story) through things comparable to syntax & semantics of written language.

  • Syntax means “word order” and semantics means “meaning”: Word order affects meaning. Compare: Dog bites man. Man bites dog.
  • Similar results occur in visual images depending on how you use our corresponding “parts of speech”

Along the way, of necessity, we will consider the human cognitive system, psychology, and the interesting world of Gestalt.

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